Collaborative divorce is an alternative to fighting to the death with your spouse in court. Using the collaborative process you can resolve your case your way, in private, out of court. The collaborative process will also help you preserve at least a civilized relationship with your ex so that you can parent your children together in the future. Collaborative divorce is, in my opinion, a better, more civilized way to get divorced. But, if you want to get a collaborative divorce, you have to be careful.
As more people ask lawyers for a collaborative divorce, more lawyers are offering this service. The problem is that not all divorce lawyers are as “collaborative” as they would have you believe. (Shocker, right?!)
Lawyers, just like doctors and other professionals, tend to specialize in certain things. They might not be able to say that they specialize because of the ethical rules in your area. But, as a practical matter, every lawyer handles more of some kinds of cases than others.
While it is a bit of a generalization, the best trial lawyers do not tend to be good collaborative lawyers, and vice versa. If you want a collaborative divorce, hiring a real collaborative divorce lawyer can make a huge difference.
What is Collaborative Divorce?
Before we discuss lawyers, though, it is important to understand what collaborative divorceis, and what it is not.
- Collaborative divorce is a dispute resolution process that focuses on helping couples resolve their differences out of court. This is done through a series of meetings during which everyone works together to identify and meet both spouses’ needs and both spouses’ goals. After a case has been completely settled then, and only then, does the couple go to court so the judge can finalize their divorce.
- Collaborative divorce utilizes a “team” approach to resolving disputes. The collaborative team typically consists of two divorce lawyers (one for each spouse), one or two divorce coaches (depending upon what the couple prefers) and a neutral financial advisor. It may also include a neutral child specialist. Each member of the team works within his or her own area of expertise so that the parties can resolve their issues more efficiently and, hopefully, cost-effectively;
- Collaborative divorce provides a divorcing couple to settle amicably rather than fight. The couple and the team sign a participation agreement at the beginning of the divorce. That agreement provides that if the parties decide to go to court, all of the divorce professionals must withdraw from the case. The divorcing couple then has to start all over again in court with new divorce lawyers.
How is Collaborative Law Different?
The collaborative divorce process is very different from the traditional court process. Instead of focusing on “rights” and “responsibilities,” in collaborative divorce, you focus on “needs” and “interests.” In other words, you look at what you and your spouse need to have happen in your divorce so that you can create the best life possible for yourselves and your kids after your divorce.
Collaborative divorce is also different because it uses different divorce professionals to provide a much greater level of support for you than traditional divorce litigation. Instead of relying on your divorce lawyer for everything, you have a team of divorce professionals who each work within their area of expertise to provide you with a much better divorce experience.
While using a whole divorce team sounds like it would be crazy expensive, it is actually surprisingly efficient. Using a professional team reduces the amount of time your lawyer spends on your case because the other professionals are helping out. Since your lawyer is usually the most expensive divorce professional you have, this saves you money on your legal fees.
With all of the benefits of collaborative divorce, it’s not surprising that more divorcing couples want to try it. Naturally, then, more lawyers are starting to offer “collaborative divorce” to their clients. The trouble is that, even though some lawyers may tell you they are willing to do your divorce “collaboratively,” they are about as collaborative as Attila the Hun.
The Truth About Divorce Lawyers
When people think about hiring a divorce lawyer, most of them envision either a gladiator, a sleazy salesman, or a hired gun. “Collaborative” is generally not an adjective that comes to mind when people think about divorce lawyers. Yet, many divorce lawyers today have realized that fighting to the death in a divorce is not good for their clients in the long run. These lawyers, whether they are collaborative or just mediative, have started to go back to being the way lawyers used to be.
Few people realize that, centuries ago, lawyers were considered to be “peacemakers” rather than gladiators. Collaborative lawyers today have taken up more of that conciliatory role. They work to protect their clients differently than other lawyers. Rather than smashing “the opposition” collaborative lawyers try to protect their client’s needs and interests by creating win-win, rather than win-lose, situations with the other side.
Because collaborative lawyers and trial lawyers approach divorce so differently, it is almost impossible to get a trial lawyer to really work well within the collaborative divorce process unless they have been trained in how the collaborative process works. That is not to say that trial lawyers can’t be collaborative. But there is a big difference between “being collaborative” and actually knowing how to do a “collaborative divorce.”
How to Get a Collaborative Divorce
A “collaborative divorce” is not just an “amicable” divorce. It is a divorce that uses an entirely different process for resolving your case. The collaborative process requires opposite parties to sit a table and negotiate with each other. It provides mental health professionals to help you manage your emotions while negotiating. It also provides an incentive for both the divorcing couple and their lawyers to “play nice.” If you stop negotiating and you go to court, you have to start all over again with new divorce lawyers and divorce professionals.
Of course, collaborative divorce is not the be all and end all of divorce processes. You can divorce amicably using many different divorce processes. The difference is that the collaborative process is specifically designed to help you reach an agreement in a very private, supported and holistic way. Because of that, collaborative divorce can help some people divorce amicably who would otherwise be fighting in court.
So how do you get a collaborative divorce if you want one? You start by getting a real collaborative divorce lawyer – one who has been trained in collaborative divorce and is comfortable using the collaborative process. Hiring a trial lawyer who promises you that s/he can “be collaborative” is not the same.
How to Find a Collaborative Divorce Lawyer
As a client, you have the right to choose which divorce process you want to use. But, to do that, you have to hire a lawyer who can truly give you what you want. Sadly, not all lawyers will be totally honest with you. To find a divorce lawyer who will meet your needs, you have to do a little research before you walk into a lawyer’s office.
The best place to look for collaborative divorce attorneys is on your local collaborative law association’s website. See if the attorney you are considering hiring is a member. (You can start by looking at the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals. If you are in Illinois, and you are looking for an Illinois Collaborative Divorce Lawyer, you can consult the Collaborative Law Institute of Illinois.)
Another good place to find collaborative divorce attorneys is by referral from other divorce professionals. Most divorce coaches will know which attorneys in town are collaborative, and which are not.
How Do you Know If You’ve Found the Right Collaborative Divorce Lawyer for You?
Once you find an attorney whom you believe is collaborative, look his/her website. Does the website talk about reducing the harm to your family? Or, does it talk about making sure the lawyer “protects your rights?” Does the lawyer advertise that s/he practices “collaborative divorce?” Or, does it just that s/he is “collaborative”? (HINT: There’s a difference!) It may seem like you are nitpicking words, but remember, you are dealing with lawyers! Words matter.
After you have identified a lawyer or two whom you want to interview, make a list of questions to ask that lawyer. You will want to ask the lawyer whether s/he practices collaborative law. Ask the lawyer whether s/he has been trained in collaborative law. Find out how many collaborative law cases s/he has handled in the past. Don’t be afraid to ask the lawyer how s/he approaches cases. Finally, ask whether the lawyer believes that your case is right for the collaborative process, and why.
The answers to all of these questions will tell you whether your prospective lawyer really practices collaborative divorce or not. Armed with accurate information, you can then make an informed decision about whether to hire that lawyer, and which divorce process you will really be using to resolve your divorce case.